With a brisk pace Rudy made his way to Oscar’s office. He swung open the glass door to step into the reception area “Is he in?” he enquired of Callahan typing at her desk.
“He just came in, but I think he’s…” barely did she have time to explain that Rudy barged into the office unannounced, “on the phone,” she finished.
Oscar waved Rudy in from behind his desk, then flashed one finger beckoning him to hold his thought until he ended his call. Seeing how Rudy was wearing a hole in his carpet Oscar curtailed his conversation and hung up the phone.
“Rudy you’re acting like a caged animal. What’s the matter?”
“We’ve got big trouble, Oscar.” Rudy stopped his pacing and wrung his hands. “Someone broke into Peter Landsbury’s security system during the night.”
Bolting upright at the news Oscar twitched his glasses off his nose and shot Rudy a wary look. “The Cyborg File?”
Rudy gave an affirmative nod of the head. “Yes.”
“How is that possible?” Oscar’s temper began to flare up. He rounded the corner of his desk to come stand by Rudy, crushing him with a leer as he phrased his next question, “You assured me his system was impregnable hence the reason why we agreed to switch from the old one.” Oscar’s spat out the words with contempt.
“I know!” Rudy’s frustration was fuelled by Oscar’s anger. “And it is. Peter is addressing the problem as we speak.
“It’s a little too late for that, isn’t it?” Oscar spoke with scathing cynism, his smouldering stare boring a hole into Rudy. “Do we know who did it? I mean can we trace the location from where the hacking originated?”
“Peter is working on it.”
Oscar retraced his steps to his desk “Do you realize that this means?”
“Yes I do. That’s why we need to bring Steve back on the double. His life may be in danger.”
“I don’t know where he is.” Shaking his head dejectedly, Oscar heaved a sigh thick with worry.
Rudy wrinkled his brow as he slowly stepped up to the desk. “What do you mean you don’t know where he is?”
“He left on his vacation three days go and didn’t leave word where he could be reached.”
“Maybe not to you but what about Callahan? It’s worth to try.”
Oscar yanked the phone off the hook to ask his secretary to come into his office. Seconds later Callahan loomed in the doorway. “Is there something I can do for you Mister Goldman?”
“Perhaps there is. Did Colonel Austin mention to you where he intended to go on his vacation?”
Callahan’s eyes swivelled back and forth to summon the memory of her last conversation with Steve prior to his departure. Then with a shrug she answered truthfully, “Not that I recall. He didn’t even mention his vacation until three days ago when he left for the airport.”
“He didn’t hint the destination to you?”
She shook her head. “No.” Her eyes darted between the two harried expressions locked onto each other. “What’s going on?”
“We need to locate Steve. It’s urgent. There was a computer break in last night. We have reason to believe they may be in possession of confidential information regarding Steve’s special nature.”
“Good heavens! That means...”
“Exactly,” Oscar finished her grim thought. He leaned forward, palms flat on the desk, to stress the importance of locating Steve before whoever stole the information get to him. “Callahan, I know that you and Steve have secrets and that he might have sworn you to secrecy about his vacation retreat, but know that his life may be in jeopardy. Please, if you know anything, tell us.”
“I swear to you Mister Goldman, Colonel Austin didn’t say anything to me.” She turned to Rudy. “But maybe his friend Cassie does. You know how those two are very close?”
Rudy threw Oscar a knowing look. “It’s worth the shot.”
Oscar grabbed his suit jacket from the coat rack and marched toward the door. “If anyone needs me I’ll be at Agent Miller’s apartment.”
“Why not just phone her?”
“Trust me. I know what I’m doing. I’ll be back in an hour.”
Oscar’s mind was whirling in a maelstrom of conjectures as he drove to Cassie’s apartment building. He held out high hope of finding Steve relaxing in the comfort of his friend’s humble dwelling as he had on his supposed vacation in the Bahamas last summer.
A knock on the door interrupted Cassie’s typing. She closed the lid on her portable and stood from her chair to go answer the door. “Oscar? What brings you here?” She bade him enter.
“I need to see Steve.”
“Steve?” She closed the door. “Steve’s not here. If I’m not mistaken he left on his holiday three days ago.”
“Cassandra it’s imperative that I talk to him.” His eyes began scanning the room. “I know he sometimes stays in your apartment when he says he’s leaving for some tropical island.”
“That happened twice only. I assured you that’s not the case today.” She sighed with indignation at her boss’s insolence. “Look, you’re welcomed to search the apartment if you want.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“Why do you need to locate him?”
“His life may be in danger.”
Cassie frowned with concern. “How?”
“Someone broke into the OSI lab mainframe. It’s safe to assume they tapped into the Cyborg file. Until we nail the people behind this we need to get Steve under surveillance.”
“Oscar I wish I could help, honest, but I have no idea where he is. He didn’t even tell me where he was going.”
“That’s odd. You two have no secrets from each other.”
“Believe it or not, we do. Besides I was still in Belgium when he left.”
“He must have hinted to you where he was intent on going?”
Cassie shook her head dejectedly. “I wish he did.”
Oscar stepped up to Cassie with a warning look. “You are telling the truth, aren’t you?”
She reciprocated with a leer. “Are you?”
“Don’t play games with me. This is no joke, Cassandra.” He spoke in grudging tones, his voice bordering on menace. “If you know where he is, tell me now.”
“I don’t,” she muttered peevishly, keeping her glare welded onto Oscar’s.
“Alright. I’m sorry. I’m just a bit on edge.”
“Apology accepted. But you know if Steve didn’t leave word to anyone of where he was going, chances are whoever might be gunning for him doesn’t either. I mean you said they gained access to the computers to steal info on the Cyborg Project. As far as I know Steve’s present location isn’t in any of those files.”
“That may be. But I’m not ready to risk it.”
Cassie groaned in frustration and grabbed her head in deep concentration. “Wait a second.” She squished her eyelids together to delve deep into her mental file. “I recall him mentioning some place. It was just in passing but he felt strongly about it.”
“Where? WHERE?” Oscar was most insistent, his eyes widened in eager expectation.
“I’m thinking.” Cassie grunted, annoyed by Oscar’s impertinence.
“Was in within the US? Perhaps in Canada? Europe? Asia?”
Cassie snapped her fingers at the answer popping into mind. “Anchorage!”
“Anchorage? As in Anchorage, Alaska?”
“He was partial to a cruise of the Alaskan glaciers. Then again I heard him talk about Curacao and St-Thomas. He could be anywhere.”
“We’ll follow your first hunch. I’ll get Callahan on the phone to every hotel in the vicinity of the Anchorage port while I get a passenger manifest from all cruise ships that set sail in the last three days.”
“Alright. You keep me informed,” she requested of Oscar as she followed him to the door. “In the meantime I’ll get started on the hotels in St-Thomas just in case.”
“Good idea. If he should call…”
“I know what to do.” Barely had she closed the door behind Oscar that she jumped on the phone to contact the Paradise Hotel where she and Steve lodged on their last vacation.
A few hours elapsed before Callahan was successful at locating Steve. Ecstatic, she breezed into her boss’s office with the address of the Ice Palace Hotel where Steve had checked in.
“Good job, Callahan.” Oscar picked up the phone and dialled the hotel phone number. The clerk rang Steve’s room but there was no answer.
“He may have stepped out to do some sightseeing.” Although a rational explanation, Callahan assumption did little to appease her boss’s qualms.
“I don’t like this.”
“If I may say so sir, I think you are overreacting. I would try reaching him a little later, like after supper. I’m sure he’ll be in his room by then.”
Oscar flashed a faint smile at the rationale behind her words. “Maybe you’re right. I’ll try again later.” He glanced up at her from behind his desk. “You can go now. I won’t need you anymore today. “
“I’ll be at my apartment if you need me for anything.”
“Thank you.” As he watched his faithful secretary exit his office he couldn’t help but chuckle at the glint in the coquettish lady’s eyes whenever she spoke of Steve. He wondered if a secret romance had been blossoming between the two.
He contacted Cassie with the latest information. She in turn invited him over for supper to further discuss the situation. There Oscar phoned Steve’s s hotel five times in the course of the evening. Still no answer. “It’s after ten in Anchorage. He should be back,”
“Maybe you should give it another hour or two.”
Oscar shook his head. “No. I’m going over there.” He crossed to the door to grab his jacket from the coat rack.
“He’s going to be mighty sore when he sees you. The reason why he didn’t leave word of where he was going was because he didn’t want anyone to disturb him.”
“I don’t care.”
“You give me twenty minutes to throw a few items in a suitcase then I’m going with you. You might need me there to smooth things over.”
Oscar nodded his consent as he stepped up to the phone to request that a plane be ready to leave for Anchorage within the hour.
Following a night landing, Cassie and Oscar drove to the Ice Palace Hotel to check in and enquired about Steve’s whereabouts. The clerk at the front desk informed them that their guest hadn’t been seen since early this morning but that his room had been paid in advance for another two weeks.
“Two weeks. Well there you have it, Oscar. This proves Steve’s alive and well and planning to remain here a while longer. Why don’t we catch a few hours of sleep and look him up in the morning?” He welcomed Cassie’s suggestion as he was fighting a losing battle with his sagging eyelids.
“I could use a few shuteyes,” he said through a yawn. He ushered Cassie to the elevators and parted ways when they reached their respective room.
Cassie waited for her boss to settle in his room before creeping down the corridor to take the elevator up to Steve’s room. She figured her presence would be less disturbing to her friend and therefore would have a better chance of reasoning with him. She brushed her knuckles on the door and waited for an answer. When none came she knocked louder but still there was no answer. ‘Strange’ she thought to herself. She didn’t insist and returned to her room.
Oscar rose with the lark the next morning to go up to Steve’s room. Rapping on the door, he was met with the same troubling silence as Cassie did the night before. He took the elevators back down to his floor and knocked on Cassie’s door.
“Who is it?”
“Just a minute.” She took a hold of her bathrobe lying on the bed and slipped it on, tightening the sash around her waist before answering the door. “Come in.”
“I just came from Steve’s room. Still no answer.”
“I went up last night and he wasn’t there either.”
“I’ll get a few men on his trail.”
“Oscar I was thinking that maybe you’re making too much of this. Steve will be mighty sore if you disrupt his vacation on an unfounded suspicion.” Oscar heaved out a frustrated sigh at her blunt statement. “Look, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be concerned but perhaps we ought to slacken the rope a bit. Give him some breathing space. I’m sure he’s safe.”
“Perhaps I’m getting a tad overwrought about this.” Oscar conceded.
“A tad?” Cassie remarked amusedly. She turned to the night table at the sound of the phone ringing. “Hello!”
“Miss Cassandra Miller?” enquired the male voice.
“This is Robert at the front desk. You asked me to notify you should I hear anything about Mister Austin?”
“You have?” She perched herself on the edge of the bed, her face registering a mixture of apprehension and anticipation.
“Melinda at the travel agency mentioned something about a cruise. If you want more information I suggest you talk to her. She’s at the agency right now. It’s down in the lobby by the restaurant. Once you’re out of the elevators you go left. You can’t miss it. He name is Melinda Crawford.”
Cassie jogged down the information on a pad. “Thank you very much.” She hung up and tore the paper off. “I’ve got to get dressed.” She rose from the bed and walked to the closet to pick out her clothes. “That was Robert down at the desk. He said Steve went to see a travel agent about a cruise. He gave me her name and where to find her to get more info. I’ll take a shower. I won’t be a minute.”
Less than twenty minutes later, Cassie and Oscar were down at the travel agency questioning Melinda.
“Mister Austin purchased a ticket for a two-week Alaskan cruise onboard the Island Princess. There was a last-minute cancellation and he jumped on it,” Melinda explained with a composed demeanour.
“When was that?”
“Yesterday morning. The ship sailed late in the afternoon.”
“Would it be possible to verify if indeed he boarded that ship on time?” Cassie asked.
“I can enquire at the their main office. It’ll only take a minute.” Melinda grabbed the phone to contact the Princess Cruise Line while Oscar and Cassie retreated in a corner of the room to casually browse through travel brochures.
“If she says that Steve got onboard safely, I hope you’ll stop being a mother hen and leave him alone to enjoy his vacation?” Cassie challenged with an edge of warning about her voice.
She grunted in frustration.
“Thank you for the information.” No sooner had Melinda hung up the phone that Oscar and Cassie stepped up to her desk. “According to their passenger check list, Mister Austin boarded the ship on time.”
“Thank you very much.” Cassie said with a grateful nod of the head before she turned to Oscar with a smirk. “Satisfied? Now can we go back to Washington?”
“I will; not you. I want you to stay at this hotel to catch him when he returns from his cruise.”
“You get him back to Washington on the double.”
“That’s an order, Agent Miller.” Oscar grinded the words on a scathing tone as he glared at Cassie, daring her to challenge him.
She met his stare with a fiery evil eye and teeth set in suppressed fury, adopting a defiant stance with fists firmly planted on her hips as she refused to wilt under her boss’s stare. “You are sending me to my death.”
“You can handle Steve better than I can.”
“That’s a matter of opinion. But if that’s what it takes to get you back to Washington and out of my hair…I’ll stay.”
In the next two weeks, Cassie engaged in leisurely activities to idle the time away. She intended to meet the ship when it docked but figured Steve would blow a casket if he knew she’d followed him to Alaska. Then again she was given orders to warn him about the security breach and escort him back to Washington. She decided it best to wait for him to return to the hotel and meet him in his room.
It was early afternoon when the vacationer returned to his hotel. As he stopped at the front desk to get his keys, the clerk handed him an envelope. “This message was left for you earlier.”
“From whom?” Steve asked as he warily examined the envelope.
The clerk shrugged and shook his head negatively. “I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t on shift when it was delivered.”
“Thank you.” Steve stepped away from the desk and opened the envelope, sliding out the paper that he unfolded to read: ‘Meet me in room 620. It’s urgent. 35’. The initials sent a small lopsided grin dancing on his lips, one that quickly refashioned itself into a wrinkled brow at the word ‘urgent’. He made his way towards the elevator and pushed the level 6 button.
A look through the peephole confirmed the identity of her expected visitor. Cassie shut her eyes and heaved a sigh of relief before opening the door wide to bid Steve enter. “Blue Eyes, welcome back! Come on in.” Stepping inside the room, Steve eyed her dubiously, wondering how she managed to find him.
“35, what are you doing here?” His somewhat icy tone prompted her to raise her hands in protest.
“Before you chew me to pieces, will you hear me out?” Steve acknowledged with a nod and sat beside her on the bed. “I didn’t want to be here. It was Oscar’s doing. He asked…no he ordered me to stay in Anchorage until your cruise ship docked to ensure you got off safely.”
“I can’t believe this! Oscar knows where I am? I made sure to cover my tracks so he would leave me in peace. What is it now?” His tone was crushingly exasperated.
“Steve, he’s worried sick about you.”
“Someone broke into Rudy’s lab database. Chance are whoever did it knows who you are and what you are, hence the reason why Oscar’s turned heaven and earth to locate you. He thinks your life may be in danger and therefore wants you back in Washington until they can nail the hackers.”
“Do they have a lead yet?”
“No. Nothing so far. At least I don’t think so; otherwise Oscar would have contacted me.” She laid her hand on his shoulder and appealed to his voice of reason. “Will you come peacefully?”
Steve chortled at the tease in her plea. “Yes Officer. I promise I will not resist arrest. That is if you agree to let me treat you to a sumptuous lobster dinner tonight.”
“Bribery, heh?” She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “I guess I can overlook it just this once.” She teased, playfully elbowing him in the side.
“I won’t breathe a word to your superior.”
“Speaking of which I should call him and let him know you’re safe.” She picked up the phone and dialled Oscar’s private line. “By the way, how was your trip?”
“Relaxing. Apart from having to catch my sea legs during the first two days it was smooth sailing all the way.”
Cassie shot Steve an air of surprise. “Sea legs? Since when do your get sea sick?”
“Yes Oscar. It’s Cassie. Our boy is fine.” She turned to Steve who threw her a reassuring wink. “He’s with me now. We’ll stay the night and head back to Washington first thing in the morning.”
“Good work, Cassandra. I will assign a few men to keep watch outside the hotel just in case. I’ll ask that they pick you up tomorrow morning around ten to drive you safely to the airport. A chartered jet will be waiting.”
“Alright. Any news?”
“Not yet. We have yet to locate the source. Our computer technicians are still working on it. Keep an eye on him, you hear?”
“I will guard him with my life. Now relax, Mother.”
“I will only when I see you both in my office.” Oscar put the receiver back in its cradle, his hand lingering on the handle as he looked up at an anxious Rudy standing in front of his desk. “Steve’s alright. He’s with Cassandra. They’ll take a flight back tomorrow morning.”
Rudy breathed out a sigh of relief. “I figured that if we had no idea where Steve was, chances were the hackers didn’t know either. It’s not mentioned in his personal file or anywhere else in the data bank for that matter.”
“Cassandra made the same assumption. Nevertheless it’s a chance we couldn’t afford to take.” Once again, Oscar grabbed the phone to issue his men an order to stand guard outside the Ice Palace Hotel.
The setting was perfect: An intimate candlelight dinner for two in the peaceful ambiance of a secluded dimlit booth in a far corner of the posh hotel restaurant. Steve wished to make this a memorable occasion seeing how this was the first night in a long while that the two friends had shared a quiet dinner,
Cassie suspected that Steve had developed an idiosyncrasy as during the course of the evening, he kept scratching behind his left ear. “Something wrong with your ear?”
“The ship doctor applied a patch behind it to prevent seasickness. Ever since he removed it I’ve been having this prickling sensation. Apparently it’s normal and expected to wear off in a couple of days.”
“Perhaps you should let Rudy check it out.”
“No. Please don’t mention anything to him. He gave me a full medical before I left on my vacation. I’m trough being prodded and poked on.”
“Okay. Mum’s the word.”
A waiter approached their table. “ Is everything satisfactory? Can I bring you anything else?”
“Just the check, please. Thank you.” Steve said.
“Right away, sir.”
As the young man walked away, Steve was suddenly seized by a powerful wave of exhaustion. Despite his best effort to conceal it, he couldn’t help but yawn his head off, much to Cassie’s amusement. “Looks like you’re fit to drop, Blue Eyes. Why don’t we call it a night?”
“You don’t mind?”
“Of course not. We can go dancing anytime. We have a long day tomorrow. Best catch some shuteyes. You know what they say: you need a vacation to get over your vacation.” Although she joked about Steve’s condition, she remained concerned by his drawn expression. Something wasn’t quite right and hoped he could eventually prove her suspicion wrong.
They were about an hour into the flight when Cassie set her magazine down to glance over to her left at her partner lost in his thoughts. A disquieted frown creased her brow at the haggard expression staring back at her. “Are you alright?”
Steve drew in a deep breath that he exhaled in a long drawn-out sigh. “I guess.”
“You don’t sound very convincing.”
“I didn’t get much sleep last night,” he said through a yawn.
“Those red swollen eyes of yours are a dead giveaway. Something on your mind?”
“I’ve been having these weird dreams lately.”
“I can’t say. They’re scrambled. They don’t make sense. All I know is that they keep me up half the nights.”
“Nights? It happened before?”
“While I was on the ship. I’d say they started about four nights ago.”
“No wonder you look like you’re about to drop. I still think you ought to visit Rudy’s lab for a check up.”
“Please.” He gripped her arm and gazed imploringly into her eyes. “Don’t say anything to him. It’s just a bit of insomnia. It’ll pass.”
“I promise if this keeps up I’ll go see him.” He gave her arm a reassuring squeeze.
She smiled her response and leaned in to brush a light kiss on his cheek. “I’ll hold my promise if you hold yours. Now try to catch a few Zs before we land.” Steve nodded and forfeited to his leaden eyelids. She sat, watching him until his breathing evened out before returning to her reading.
Oscar met with their plane at Andrews to fill them in on the latest developments which were less than satisfying. He insisted upon posting agents outside Steve’s residence to ensure his protection. Although he had thankfully managed to catch some shuteye during the flight, Steve was still a bit weary and offered no resistance to his boss’s orders. He was in no condition to argue with Oscar and under the circumstances, thought perhaps it was best to have guard dogs surround his house while slightly debilitated.
Oscar dropped them both at Steve’s house and returned to the office. With a spring in his step, Steve escorted his friend up to the front door and ushered her inside.
“You are definitely more sprightly than you were when we left Anchorage.” Cassie remarked with delight.
“Yep! Those two hours of sleep did wonders. I feel revitalized, though still a bit out of joint. Want something to eat?”
“No thanks. Though a glass of grape juice would be nice, if you have some?”
“I always keep a fresh bottle just for you.”
“You’re so sweet.”
Steve unconsciously scratched behind his left ear as he poured in the two glasses. “Here you go.”
“Your ear bothering you again?” Cassie observed as she took the offered glass.
“It comes and goes.”
“Do you mind if I take a look?” Steve shrugged his consent to her request. He sat at the counter and cocked his head to the right to make it easy for Cassie to examine the spot. “Did you hurt yourself?” Cassie thought peculiar the tiny visible scar behind his ear.
“No. Why do you ask?”
“You have a small scar.” She delicately brushed her fingers over the mark. “I doubt the patch could have made this. Looks like this was a deep gash since it required suture.”
“Suture?” Steve swiftly reached behind his ear, allowing Cassie’s hand to guide his fingers over the mark. “Oh yeah I remember now. In my last mission I took a severe beating and Rudy had to patch me up some.”
“Nevertheless I say we ought to check it out just to be safe. It’s obviously bothering you.”
“Maybe you’re right. I’ll drop by Rudy’s lab tomorrow. I just hope he doesn’t put me through another battery of tests. I hate those.”
“I know what you mean. I have one coming up soon and I’m certainly not looking forward to it.” Cassie chuckled and then quaffed the rest of her juice before she headed for the door. “I’ll come by in the morning to pick you up.”
“You’re leaving already?” Steve sounded disappointed.
“Thought I might use the rest of day to go shopping for your mother’s birthday next week. Meanwhile, you get some rest. I’ll see you around nine.” She gave him a friendly tap on his shoulder as he opened the door for her.
With a thoughtful grin on his face, he watched his lady friend walked to the car parked across the street and step into the back seat. The agent turned the vehicle around and drove away, leaving the second car on duty behind.
In the hush of the night, while one agent slept and the second one mounted guard, a car was parked alongside the curb a few yards down Steve’s street. The lone figure then walked the rest of the way and crept behind a shrubbery where it positioned itself across from Steve’s house, away from prying eyes and ears. The man waited for a signal that came in the form of a light switching on and off in the resident’s home. He waited for the repeat before returning to his car to contact his superior.
“Yeah. He did it. Twice.”
“Good,” crowed the voice on the other end. “He’s ready. We’ll put phase two into effect tomorrow. Now come back to base before anyone sees you.”
“Right away, boss.” After hanging up the phone, the man started the ignition and drove away with a devilish grin on his face.
In his bedroom, Steve was slipping on his clothes when the doorbell rang. Buckling his belt he glanced up at the wall clock and grinned. “Right on time.” He climbed down the flight of stairs and gave the living room a quick sweep to ensure everything was in order before making his way to the door. “Come on in, 35. I’ll be ready in a second.” He stepped up to the sofa to grab his sport jacket draped over the back.
“I notified Rudy last night that we would be dropping by his lab today. He’ll be in a meeting all morning so that’ll give us time to swing by Oscar’s office and get the latest on the computer break-in.”
“Good idea. Your car or mine?”
“I thought we should use mine since it’s parked right outside. That is if you don’t mind me driving?”
“Of course not. Besides I don’t feel up to driving this morning. “ Steve closed and bolted the door. With a hand on the small of Cassie’s back he led her to the car.
“Bad night again?”
“Not really. Woke up a few times but I managed to take in eight hours of sleep.”
Fasten on Steve and Cassie taken place in the car were three pairs of scrutinizing eyes, one of which belonged to an unscrupulous organization governed by an old foe seeking retribution. The first car followed Cassie’s while the second maintained its position outside Steve’s house. As Cassie’s car whizzed past his vehicle, the man picked up his cell phone to notify his boss that the prey was out of its hole. He was instructed to follow at a safe distance and check back once it was established where Austin was headed.
The man stopped tailing the subject’s car when it became evident that its destination was the OSI Headquarters. He parked a few yards away from the Pentagon and contacted his superior. “OSI. He and the girl are there now.”
“Okay. We’re ready here. You have your security clearance card?”
“Once Goldman’s out of the office, you give me a call.”
“Right away.” The man rummaged through his shirt pocket to take out his fake OSI ID card. He brushed back a few locks of hair hanging loose on his forehead and put on glasses to resemble his picture on the pass.
“Agent Miller!” A woman called out from down the corridor as Steve and Cassie exited the elevator. “Hello Colonel.”
“Agent Miller, I noticed a few discrepancies in your last mission report that I would like to go over with you before I enter it into the database. Do you have a couple of minutes? It shouldn’t take long.”
“I thought all computers were on hold until they found the bug?”
“Oh they did. About an hour ago. They located the unauthorized link and blocked it.”
“That’s great! Cassie enthused, then turned to Steve. “You go ahead. I’ll join you in a short while.”
“Okay. Nice seeing you again Miss Cranston.”
“You too, Colonel.”
Callahan’s fetching smile greeted Steve upon his entering the reception area. “Colonel Austin, I was just about to call you. Mister Goldman has asked to see you right away. It’s in regard to the break-in.”
“Yes I was told they found the illegal terminal?”
“Thankfully so. You may go right in.”
Stepping into the boss’s office, he found him on the phone with his assistant. Oscar beckoned him to enter and take a seat in front of his desk. “Russ you keep me posted. I’ll have more men on standby for reinforcement. Don’t do anything until I give the word, okay?” Oscar waited for an answer before hanging up. “Steve, that was fast. I just asked Callahan to call you a few minutes ago.”
“I came by to see Rudy and thought I checked with you first to see if you had any news on the hackers.”
“We do. At least we know where the signal comes from. Russ is there right now, investigating. Hopefully we’ll nab whoever’s behind this.”
“Good. Does that mean you’ll call off your watchdogs around my house?”
“Not quite. We have to make sure we get them all before I do let you out on your own. As I was saying we….” He was interrupted by a buzz. “Yes Callahan?”
“There’s a call on line one from the archives. He says it’s urgent.”
“Okay, pass it through. Oscar Goldman here.”
“Mister Goldman, I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but would it be possible for you to come down to the archives right away? We need you to access a backup file,” the man affected with a light southern accent.
“Can’t you access it with my password? I’m in a meeting.”
“Normally we would but this one requires a thermoscan. We need your print, sir.”
Oscar let out a frustrated sigh. “Alright. I’ll be right down.” He hung up and stood from his chair. “They need me down at archives. I won’t be long.” He grabbed his jacket from the coat rack and slipped it on as he made his way to the door. “In the meantime, make yourself comfortable. Callahan made a fresh pot of coffee if you want some.”
The man waited for Oscar to press the elevator button to contact his boss. “He’s out of the office. I say you have a good ten minutes from the time it’ll take him to get down to archives, realize it’s a hoax and get back up again.”
“That’s plenty,” assumed the gruff voice over the phone. ”You call me the second he gets back up there. Oh by the way, they found us out.”
“We omitted to delete the last entry. Harvey couldn’t pull the wool over their eyes much longer. Get out of there the minute Goldman shows up. You meet me at the new place and be sure not to pick up a tail.”
No sooner had he hung up on his henchman that the head honcho activated a tiny transmitter. In Oscar’s office, Steve was fixing himself a cup of coffee when he suddenly felt compelled to go sneak inside the safe, which door was left ajar. He opened the top drawer of the filing cabinet and picked up a top-secret document that he started poring over with absorbed interest. Several minutes elapsed before he put the dossier back in its original place. He exited the safe and stepped up to the bar to grab his cup of coffee. He was making his way back to his seat when Oscar showed up.
“That’s strange.” Oscar wore a dubious expression. “No one down at archives said they called me. Everything’s fine.” As he took his seat behind his desk, Callahan buzzed his desk.” What now?” Oscar huffed. “Yes Callahan?”
“Agent Miller is here to see you.”
“Send her in.”
“Hey boss!” Cassie greeted in her usual cheerful fashion. “I hear you caught the little bugger?”
Oscar beckoned her to take a seat besides Steve before he began exposing the current situation. Steve was raring to participate in the investigation but Oscar was quick to explain that under the circumstances he couldn’t take a chance on this being a set-up.
“At this point we have no way of knowing if the hackers willingly let us tapped into their illegal link. Therefore you are to remain put. Russ and his men will handle it. In he meantime I expect you to be a good boy and stay at your house.”
Steve agreed begrudgingly to remain under surveillance until the hackers and their suspected associates were taken into custody. To palliate to Steve’s torment, Cassie proposed that he moved to the apartment for the time being. Instead he suggested she come live with him, seeing how his house offered more space. Once Oscar gave the living arrangement his stamp of approval, Cassie and Steve said their goodbyes, promising to keep their cell phones open. They left the office and headed down to Rudy’s lab.
“Hi Cassie, Steve,” Linda, Rudy’s secretary, greeted as the two entered the reception area. “You can go right in. Dr. Wells is expecting you.”
“Thank you.” Cassie said, then turned her attention to Steve who began scratching behind his left ear. “Itchy again?”
“Yeah, but not as bad as before.”
“We’ll get to bottom of this. Hop on the table.”
“Yes Doctor,” Steve mocked with a salute before jumping onto the examining table.
Rudy was at the faucet washing his hands. He shook them of the excess water, then grabbed a towel and dried them as he made his way to Steve and Cassie. “Okay, let’s see what we have here.” He tossed the hand towel onto the counter and proceeded to examine the scar. He prodded the bruised area and asked, “Is it tender?”
“No, just itchy.”
“Those are not one of my sutures, this I can tell you. You say the doctor only applied a patch?” Steve nodded his head. “How long before he took it off?”
“About a week.”
“Did he mention he broke the skin?”
“No. It didn’t hurt. It was like removing a band aid.”
“Ummmm. “ Rudy pondered this baffling mystery. “ And you don’t remember him doing anything else?”
“No. Should I?” Steve grew concerned at Rudy’s solemn tone.
“Rudy, what is it?” Cassie asked worriedly.
“ I don’t know. It’s very puzzling. I’m going to take a scan and find out.”
While Rudy set up his instruments, upstairs Oscar received a call from Russ informing his boss that they had struck the mother load. Oscar instructed him to remain on standby until he arrived with reinforcement. It wasn’t long before he showed up at the abandoned apartment building where the hackers had set up their offices.
“Anyone in there?” Oscar asked Russ.
“So far no sign of life. We followed your instructions and merely surrounded the building.”
“Okay then. Let’s go” Oscar signalled his men to charge into the building. With guns in hands, they kicked down the many doors, searched every empty room until they hit bull’s-eye. But to their dismay the equipment was missing, only the wire cables remained and a few scraps of papers littered the wooden floor.
“Obviously they knew we were coming and cleared out.” Oscar’s teeth were set in anger as he felt the vials of wrath pouring out of him. “Let’s dust this room for fingerprints. Hopefully we’ll get a set that’ll match one on our list of most wanted.”
Russ acquiesced to his boss’s order, assuring that he would arrange for a team of forensic experts to be dispatched on site within the hour.
Meanwhile back at lab, with the head scan over, Rudy suggested Cassie to take Steve back to his house for a nap. The exam had visibly taken its toll on her Blue Eyes who strained to keep his eyes open. Rudy promised to call the minute he got the results of the scan with it hopefully, an explanation to his insomnia.
On the drive back to his residence, Steve raised the dreaded question. “Cassie do you suppose they got to me without my knowing it?”
“I don’t know. Whoever broke into the computer system?”
“I doubt they could have known where you were when Oscar couldn’t even locate you.”
“But he eventually did.”
“Only because I recalled you mentioning Alaska to me as a prospect for your next vacation retreat. Aside from that you left no hint as to your destination.”
“I guess you’re right.“ He heaved out a heavy-laden sigh and sunk deeper into his seat with his head leaning against the headrest. “I’m overreacting.”
“I think it’s our fault. We may have been smothering you with attention and you’re starting to suffocate. The oxygen depravation is affecting your brain and making you a tad paranoid.”
“That’s a metaphoric way of putting it,” he said through a stretching yawn.
“Besides it’s better to be safe than sorry. I say stay on your guard. It’s obvious that scar didn’t get there by itself. Hopefully the test results will provide us with some answers.” She veered the car into the driveway and turned off the ignition. “You mind if I stay with you the rest of the afternoon?”
“Of course not. Though I may not be of good company, seeing how I suspect I’m going to crash in my bed.” He stepped out of the car and closed the door.
“I may join you in a nap myself.” She laced her arm in his as they ambled up the pathway to the front door.
“Your bed or mine?” His joke received a playful swat on the arm.
Later that day, Rudy called Oscar down to the lab to look at Steve’s brain scan that revealed a startling anomaly.
The doctor pointed to a dark mass on the side of Steve’s brain behind the left ear. “Is that a tumour?” Oscar surmised.
“No. It’s a solid metallic object.” Rudy took another X-Ray film and put it up on the board. “Here’s a larger scan. It clearly shows the complexity of what appears to be some sort of microchip.”
“How did it get inside Steve’s skull?”
“That is a good question. My guess is sometime between his last physical, which would be three days before his departure for Alaska and his return to Washington. The scar at the back of his left ear hasn’t completely healed yet.”
Oscar’s eyes began shifting back and forth in deep concentration. “The cruise! That must be when they got to him. Steve told Cassie that he had been seasick the first few days he was onboard the ship.”
“I know he told me, which I find very odd. Since when does Steve get sick at sea?”
“Exactly. I’ll request a passenger manifest from the Cruise Line, see if any name strikes a familiar note.”
“I’d have that ship doctor checked out. Either he was a willing participant or he was threatened to perform the surgery.”
“I’m in the dark as to the purpose of such an implant. I mean if they wanted Steve why not just kidnap him?” Oscar pondered the question while studying the brain scan.
“I presume they wanted him to retrieve confidential information. They must be controlling his every thought and movement.” Oscar jerked his head towards Rudy and stared at him in shock. “And may not be aware of it. Remember the Billy Parker incident a year ago?” Rudy motioned to the scan. “Same thing. Perhaps more intricate since it’s a bit bigger than they one I removed from Parker’s brain.”
“If that’s true then,” Oscar’s felt a rush of adrenalin at the alarming notion crossing his mind, “then they can suggest him just about anything, including murder.” The ringing of the phone interrupted the exchange of deep worried frowns between the two men.
Rudy picked it up. “Rudy Wells.” He glanced up at Oscar. “Yes, he’s here. Hold on.” He handed the receiver over to Oscar. “It’s Carlton down at forensic.”
“Carlton? What’s up?”
“Mister Goldman. We identified one of the sets of prints. They match Harvey Weiss’s. ”
“Does he know?”
“Call engineering. Instruct the supervisor to keep his eye on him. He must not let him out of the room. I’m on my way.” Oscar hung up “They caught our man, at least one of them. It’s Harvey Weiss.”
“The same one you assigned to smoke out the hackers?”
“Yeah. Big mistake. No wonder he never achieved results. Do you know where Steve might be?”
“I sent him home to rest. Cassie went along with him.”
“Can you remove that chip today?”
“Impossible. This is a delicate procedure. But I can have him down here within the hour to keep him under observation. If needed be I’ll administer a strong sedative so he won’t be tempted to obey their command.”
“Do it. If you need me I’ll be down at engineering interrogating our spy.”
“I’ll get in touch with Cassie then I’ll join you. Might have a question or two regarding that implant.”
Meanwhile, all was quiet at Steve’s house. Both he and Cassie were napping soundly until a searing pain in the back of his neck jolted Steve awake. He rubbed the sore spot and rose out of bed. He stoically made his way to the living room, grabbed his car keys on the table and headed outside to his car. As if under a spell he put on the ignition and drove away to an unknown destination.
Barely ten minutes later, Cassie was startled out of sleep by the phone ring. Groggy, she lazily fumbled with the receiver. “Hello?”
“Cassie? You alright?” Rudy asked, concerned.
“Yeah. Yeah. I’m fine,” she answered through a drawn-out yawn. “The phone woke me up. I was just resting.”
“Is Steve still with you?”
“He’s napping in his room. Something wrong?”
“Yes. The CT scan shows that Steve was given a brain implant. You must get him down to the lab at once. He could be under hypnotic suggestion. Proceed very cautiously. Don’t let on that anything is wrong.”
“Alright. We’ll be right there.” She plonked the receiver down in its cradle and leapt out of bed to hurry down the corridor to Steve’s room. There horror struck her upon seeing the empty bed. She frantically searched every room in the house, calling out his name, but silence was her only answer.
Down at the interrogating room, Oscar’s eyes were shooting daggers at Weiss as he assailed him with questions regarding his involvement in the enemy organization. The grilling was becoming so intense that Rudy had to pull his boss aside to douse the fire consuming him. “I may not be my place to say by I suggest you ease up on the man or you won’t get anywhere with him.”
Oscar chuffed out a loud exasperated sigh and nodded. “You’re right.” He turned back to Weiss who was staring at him defiantly. “I want my attorney present,” he demanded authoritatively, raising Oscar’s ire. “I won’t speak unless he tells me too.”
“You won’t need an attorney Mr. Weiss. We’re going to let you go.” That bold statement elicited two shocked expressions out of Rudy and Weiss.
“You heard me. We’re going to let you go but before we do,” he flattened the palms of his hands onto the table and leaned in to stand inches from Weiss’s face, “we’re going to make sure your associates get word that we discovered your were the mole and grilled you until you spilled the beans.”
“You can’t do that,” Weiss gulped nervously.
“They’ll kill me!”
“Oh really? Then maybe you’d be safer with us then?” Oscar said sarcastically. “We can provide you with a whole new identity and send you to a remote island where they can’t get to you. How’s that for a fair bargain?”
“I’ve heard of your so-called Witness Protection Programs. They’re full of leaks. They’ll find me.”
“Ninety-nine per cent chances they won’t. But if we let word run rampant that you’ve been snitching on them…” Oscar needed not finish his sentence for the taunting smirk on his face spoke louder than words.
An ominous silence fell on the room as Weiss carefully weighed his options. He finally looked up at the two men staring at him expectantly. “Alright. I’ll give you all the information you need in exchange for a new identity.”
“You got it. Start talking.” Oscar pressed the record button on the tape recorder and perched himself on the edge of the table.
“Do you remember a man by the name of Martin Cryder?”
“Yes I do,” Rudy answered before Oscar could get a word in. “Isn’t he the scientist whose project was dropped because of lack of funds?” he directed that question at a puzzled Oscar.
“You’d have to be more specific, Rudy. The OSI has shelved dozens of projects.”
“I can’t recall the name of the project but what I do remember is that Cryder was incensed at the fact that his brainchild was dropped and not mine.”
“Rudy are saying this man knew about project ‘Cyborg’?”
“He didn’t until I helped him tapped into the lab mainframe,” Weiss piped in. “He apparently still holds you, Mister Goldman, accountable for his project’s failure to see the light of day. He was incensed to learn that Dr. Wells’s costly project dealing with bionics was approved and not his. He set out to sniff out the prototype in existence. That’s when I came in.” He paused to collect his thoughts before continuing, “He recruited me a few weeks back. The money was just too good to pass up so I agreed to break into the security system and establish an illegal link to their computer. He and his technical engineers did the rest. I was to cover their tracks and sever the link once they retrieved the information they needed. I did meet with him and unfortunately I left my business card,” he held up his fingers in the air, “at his place. Otherwise you never would have found me out.”
“Cryder was convinced a cyborg prototype existed but didn’t know who it was.” He paused to eye the two men before him. “ He does now. Once he got wind of Austin’s vacation destination he had his men follow him. They were planning to take him while he was alone but when they learned he was to board the Island Princess, Cryder contacted his good friend Dr. Prescott aboard the ship and discussed the matter of the experimental brain implant.”
“What does it do?” Rudy asked.
“Basically it sends instructions to his brain to act and think a certain way. It also stores any information that Austin sees, hears, smells, touches and tastes.”
“You said it was experimental?” Rudy probed further.
“Yeah,” Weiss replied embarrassingly. “I’m no neurologist but from what I heard Cryder told his men of this gizmo I have reasons to believe there can be short-term ill effects, beginning with insomnia, killer headaches and eventually a reject.”
“Insomnia and headaches?” Oscar turned to Rudy with a worried frown. “Is that what Steve said he was suffering from ever since he came back from his cruise?”
“Yes,” Rudy concurred. “I’ll get that implant out as soon as he arrives. I called Cassie and asked her to bring him to the lab, speaking of which I should be there. Do you need me anymore down here?”
“Do you know how to remove it without possibly killing him?” Weiss asked.
“I’ve dealt with those before. I’m aware of their neuronal complexity,” Rudy retorted with confidence.
“Something still doesn’t fit the bill. I mean if all Cryder wanted was Steve why this cloak-and-dagger? You hacked your way into the network; Cryder has all the data he wants. Why go to all this trouble? Why not just kidnap Steve?”
“For one kidnapping would have brought the Feds on him. Second he had an ulterior motive. He got word that his Tumbleweed Project had apparently secretly been revived. He didn’t want anyone benefiting from what he considered his greatest achievement. He wanted to delve deeper into the OSI’S intention to make it a reality. He knew Austin was Goldman’s most trusted agent and his security clearance allowed him to access files that others can’t. They made him a spy. But now that they’ve been found out, they’ll…”
“First they will retrieve all the information stored in the microchip so far. Then they might decide to either keep him for study purposes or do away with him.”
At that moment the phone rang. Oscar picked it up. “Cassandra?” What’s the matter?”
“Is Rudy with you? I need to talk to him. It’s urgent.”
With a quizzical look Oscar handed the receiver over to Rudy. “Cassie? Are you and Steve at the lab already?”
“Steve is missing. After your call I went to his room to wake him but he wasn’t there.”
“I searched everywhere. His car’s gone. He didn’t leave me a note as to where he was going. That’s not like him. Do you think he could have acted on a suggestion?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Okay you stay put. Oscar and I will meet there.” He hung up the phone and shot Oscar a worried look. “Cassie said Steve’s missing.”
Oscar sprung to his feet at the startling news. “Them?”
Rudy nodded. “Most likely.”
Oscar shifted his eyes back on Weiss. “Okay, where have they taken him?”
“I’m supposed to meet them at their hideout downtown. I assume that’s where they instructed Austin to go.”
“Where is it?” Oscar jogged down the address and then beckoned the guard the take Weiss into custody.
“Goldman, don’t forget your promise,” Weiss reminded with a warning glare.
Oscar waved the piece of paper in the air. “If this address is correct and we found Colonel Austin, you will be given a first-rate treatment. You’ve got my word.”
Cassie was nervously wringing her hands of its blood while striding up and down the living room, wearing a whole in the carpet when the doorbell rang. She swirled on her heels and dashed to answer the door. “Oscar, Rudy. I didn’t find any clue as to where he might have gone?”
“We do. We found the mole at the OSI. It’s Harvey Weiss. He told us who’s behind this and what they did to Steve.”
“Did he say where they took him?”
“He gave us an address and we’re on our way to check it out. Care to come along?”
“Stupid question.” She grabbed her coat and followed Oscar and Rudy out the door and to their car. “How many men have you got?”
“Six. They’re already surrounding the house inside which we believe they’re holding Steve.” Oscar informed as he opened the car door for her.
“Let’s go!” She took place in the back seat next to Rudy and Oscar sat in the front. “I appreciate you filling me in on the way.”
And he did. Cassie was brought up to date on the Tumbleweed Project and Martin Cryder’s involvement in Steve’s brain implant. By the time they reached the house in question the woman was spitting fire. It took all of her strength to keep from storming in to get Steve out, but knew she had to restrain herself from giving free rein to her urge for fear of endangering her friend’s life.
Oscar rallied his men around and after instructing them on the procedure to follow four proceeded to surround the house, while the other two followed their boss to the main entrance. At the door, Oscar and the two agents plastered their backs against the wall while Cassie casually ran the doorbell, using Weiss’s code. Through the window Oscar could see a man walking up to the door. He looked through the peephole and panicked. As he retraced his steps, two men kicked the door open.
“Hold it right there!” Oscar ordered, with his gun drawn. Once ensuring that his two agents had his back covered, he holstered his weapon and stepped up to the frightened chap, rooted to the spot with his hands held up. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man replied with a small quiver in his voice that betrayed his innocence.
“Steve Austin. We know he’s here. You take us to him. NOW!!!” Oscar shoved the man onwards and maintained a safe distance between he and his hostage to avoid a sudden kick in the stomach. When they reached the door behind which Cryder was conversing with his henchmen, Oscar nodded to his two men to bashed down the door. Barely had Cryder and his three watchdogs had time to reach for their weapons that already the four OSI agents had theirs trained on them. The other was thrust into the room and landed at his boss’s feet.
“Well, well, well if it isn’t the O mighty Oscar Goldman,” Cryder sneered with his hands in the air while he was being frisked.
“Where is Colonel Austin?”
Cryder fashioned a sly grin and pointed behind him. “Behind you.”
Oscar swirled on his heels to be seized by terror at the sight before him. Steve held Cassie in a neck grip with a gun pressed against her temple.
“If you don’t want your precious cyborg to break her neck or shoot her in the head, you will do as I say. First, all of you, drop your guns.”
“No!” Cassie shouted, confident that Steve would never hurt her. “Don’t do it Oscar. Steve won’t hurt me.”
Oscar studied Steve’s facial expression to ascertain whether he should yield to Cassie’s request instead of Cryder’s. His friend’s stoicism was powerfully disturbing and knowing Cryder had control over his very thought and movement, Oscar didn’t want to take the risk. He nodded to his men to lower their guns.
“Oscar, don’t do this. Take them outside and leave me alone with Steve.”
“Cassandra it’s too….”
“Please,” she interrupted on a beseeching tone. “ I know what I’m doing. Go now!” Oscar sighed heavily as he tried to turn a deaf ear to the dictates of his conscience urging him to kowtow to the enemy. Cassie’s withering glare convinced him to trust her instincts and he ordered his agents to escort Cryder and his men outside.
As he walked past his puppet, Cryder yelled. “Kill her, Austin.” The command prompted Steve to tighten his hold around Cassie’s neck. Her eyes pleaded with Oscar to get those men out of sight before Steve did something they would all regret.
“Steve.” She strived to maintain a composed poise to avoid startling her companion. “Steve, we’re alone now. Put the gun down. They won’t hurt you.”
“I must kill you,” he spoke in a monotone, his voice devoid of any emotion.
“No you don’t. You know you don’t. You can’t kill your Brown-Eyed Girl.”
“You are the enemy. You have come to kill me.”
“That’s not true,” she gulped nervously as she felt the cold barrel of the gun pressing deeper into her temple. “Steve…Blue Eyes,” she closed her eyes in hope the pet name would break into his trance, “Let me go…please,” she begged quaveringly. She sighed inwardly at the feel of Steve’s grip loosening around her neck. Slowly she peeled herself off him and turned to stand inches away from him. She dared not tried to take the gun firmly clenched in his hand and pointed at her head for fear he might press the trigger. She stared deep into the mirrors of his soul to reach out to the real Steve Austin she knew was raring to get out. “Look deep into my eyes.” She waited for a sign of acknowledgement before continuing, “You know me. You know I can never hurt you. Your Brown-Eyed Girl loves you, Steve.”
He scrunched up his eyes together as a wave of pain washed through him. “I…c…..can’t….s…stop it.” He stuttered through clenched teeth, his face distorted in agony. “Go! Leave before I shoot…shoot you.” The gun trembled in his hands as he strived to fight off the urge to pull the trigger.
Cassie held out her hand. “Hand me the gun. Please…give it to me.”
“Yes you can. Trust me. Trust your Brown-Eyed Girl.”
“I know and I hate to see you like this. Drop it onto the floor and stop your suffering.” She risked a step up to him to near the gun in his hand, keeping eye contact with him as she slowly reached for the weapon. “It’s over now. Let go off the gun. It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.” She managed to pulled the gun from his trembling hand and stretched out her arm to set it on a nearby table. “Steve, are you okay?” her answer came in the form of a terrorized expression, evidence that her friend had finally broken out of his prison. She smiled and enlaced him in a heart-warming hug. She could feel his body shuddering as she held him close, his arms tightening the clench as if clinging to a lifeline.
“I couldn’t stop it, Cassie. Dear God I almost killed you.”
“No you didn’t. “ She disengaged the embrace to gaze into his dewy eyes. “No hypnotic suggestion no matter how strong it is could impel your heart and soul to commit an act that is against your conviction. You couldn’t hurt me no more than I can hurt you.” He flashed her his trademark lopsided grin before he experienced a fainting spell. She slid her arms around his waist to prevent him from falling. “Can you make it outside?” Steve breathed in and out to quell the wave of nausea rising to his throat; then nodded his answer. “I’ll help you. Lean on me.”
He slung one arm around her shoulders and gripped the hand holding him at the waist. “I really don’t feel very good,” he lamented, trying hard not to apply his full body weight onto Cassie.
“Rudy’s waiting in the car outside. He’ll take care of you. Just a little more steps.”
The hypnotic motion of Callahan and Cassie pacing the waiting room floor was giving Oscar a headache. He rubbed his strained eyes and heaved himself out of the couch to go stretch his legs. He glanced to his right, his eyes dwelling on the doors at the far end of the corridor through which Steve was wheeled over four hours ago. He distractedly looked at his wristwatch as he made his way to the coffee dispenser. Cringing at the foul taste of the dark liquid he tossed the cup into the trashcan and walked back to join the two harried ladies still wearing a hole in the rug.
“Steve has been in there a long time,” Callahan observed grimly.
“Rudy said it was a delicate procedure,” Cassie assured as she walked up to her friend to place a comforting hand on her the petite woman’s shoulder. “He knows what he’s doing. He removed one before. Remember Billy Parker?”
Callahan nodded, though her eyes belied her true emotion. Cassie slanted her head and smiled at the deep concern reflecting in her friend’s careworn expression. “He’s an easy one to love, isn’t he?”
Callahan chuffed out a small chuckle and broke into a musing grin. “Yeah. Very much so.” She turned to Cassie and hinted, “I suspect his heart belongs to someone special.”
Barely had Cassie deciphered the meaning behind Callahan’s statement that Rudy came out of the OR. The three friends seeking to relieve their anguish met the physically spent doctor halfway down the corridor. No need for words when their eyes spoke of the apprehension of hearing his diagnosis. He strained a reassuring smile and nodded. “The operation was a success. A few days rest and he should be fine. Hopefully there won’t be any residual effect from the implant.”
A wave of relief ran through the emotionally charged atmosphere.
“Will he remember everything that he did while he was under hypnotic suggestion?” Cassie asked disquietly.
“I imagine he might. Parker did.”
“Can we see him?” Callahan asked.
“He’s sleeping now and I suggest you do the same and come back tomorrow morning. He should be awake by then.”
Oscar, Cassie and Callahan agreed, albeit with some reluctance, to visit with Steve in the morning. They left for their respective residence but none could get a decent night sleep. Oscar and Callahan drove together to the hospital early in the morning to check on the patient who was enjoying his breakfast in bed.
After a brief exchange of regrets and rejoicings, the boss and his secretary left the room. They met with a miffed Cassie down the hall who explained about the flat tire that delayed her arrival.
“Steve’s doing good this morning. He was finishing his breakfast when we left just now,” Oscar informed.
“He was asking for you,” Callahan added on an implying tone.
“Does he remember?”
Oscar nodded. “Go ahead.” He gave her an emboldening tap on the shoulder. “We’ll be at the office.” Cassie nodded in acknowledgement and watched them walk away before turning to Steve’s room. She drew in a deep breath and marched her way inside.
“Hey Blue Eyes. It’s good to see you back to your old self again.” She bent down to brush a chaste kiss on his forehead. “How are you feeling?”
Steve lowered his eyes in shame. Cassie placed her hand underneath his chin to raise his head and stared deep into his pained eyes. “Something wrong?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“Of course something’s wrong” he lashed out. “God sake I almost killed you.”
“But you didn’t” she sat on the edge of the bed and began rubbing his arm. “Hypnosis or no hypnosis, I knew you could never harm me no more than I could you.”
“When I think about that gun against your….”
“Hey, hey, hey,” she gripped his arm and shook it, “don’t do this to yourself. It’s over. You didn’t know what you were doing.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered quaveringly.
“You will be if you don’t treat me to a lobster dinner at one of the finest seafood restaurants in town,” she teased with a friendly wink that elicited a chuckle out of Steve.
“You’re something else,” he mused with eyes twinkling in deep admiration.
“You’d better believe it, kid. I’m here to stay. You won’t get rid of me that easily.”
“Promise. Now you get some rest and I’ll be back this afternoon to check on you see if you’re heeding your doctor’s orders.”
“Yes ma’am.” As she stood from the bed, he clasped her hand to get her attention. When she turned to him with her bewitching brown eyes and fetching smile, words failed him. Instead he breathed out a heartfelt ‘thanks’.
“You’re welcomed.” She squeezed his hand in gratitude and made her way to the door. She stopped and turned to wave goodbye. “See you later.”
Steve sighed heavily and sank his head into his pillow. He ran his hand through his hair and clawed at his skull. Staring at the ceiling, he heaved out. “Steve Austin, what is happening to you? She’s just a friend.”